For 16 years, young Maxwell spent each day trying to fit as a square peg in a round world. Autism is not an easy hurdle to overcome; it is often misunderstood, not only by others, but by those who live with the effects every day. Maxwell’s family says he made the best of it, throwing himself into the things he loved, such as science and animals. Many residents in his hometown of Independence, Kansas, speak of him fondly, saying with a smile that he marched to the beat of his own drum.
Unfortunately, schoolmates did not share those sentiments. After asking school officials for help and receiving no support, Maxwell left the public school he attended. A behavioral institute’s mental evaluation revealed “mental abuse from bullying.” His parents say due to his autism, he lacked the tools to defend himself, making him a prime target in an environment where “survival of the fittest” is painfully real.
October was National Anti-Bullying Month, so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to address something I feel is a major problem, not only within the school system, but within our community, as well.
I know firsthand the lasting damage to a child’s self-esteem that bullying can do. I was small. I hated sports. By 2nd grade, I wore glasses. Extremely dorky glasses. I was a straight-A student. As if all that didn’t make me stand out enough, add to the mix that I was raised in a religious cult where birthdays, Christmas, and school Halloween parties were forbidden.
You do the math.
I think by nature, I was born an extrovert. But my school years taught me instead that the deeper into your shell you go, the less vulnerable you are. As a result, social anxiety and extreme shyness in public are still challenges I face on a constant basis; that’s a real pain in the ass when you make your living as a reporter.
Did I live through bullying? Yes. But it still pisses me off that my instinct when someone introduces themselves to me in a bar is to run.
According to the National Education Association, it is estimated that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students. Over 275,000 students in secondary schools are physically attacked each month. Bullying is not anything new, but thanks to the Internet age, it is getting more attention all the time. Incidents that would never have been reported or even talked about are now seen by thousands literally within a matter of minutes, as in the case of the school bus assault of one boy by three teenagers, captured on the bus cam.
I asked some friends to contribute to this article, and I was flooded with responses. Marty, for example, still carries the deep scars of his school years with him. Marty, who is gay, was a target, alongside his straight twin brother.
“We were, and still are, close,” he told me. “This closeness was read as ‘gay,’ and our world became hell. Faggots, queers, gays… I couldn’t go from one class to the next without being called that, and I had already been called ‘faggot’ enough to know that it was something of which to be ashamed.
“I was an outcast. Crying at night. Hating school during the day. Trying to make friends. We made the attempt to attend one party/dance at our middle school. I remember getting cornered at the pizza table by three guys who all slapped and smeared the pizza over my clothing. My brother noticed too late that I’d been separated from the herd, and came to my rescue after it was over. We left in tears.”
Unfortunately today, technology can also be used as a weapon, as nearly half of all children nowadays have been bullied online.
Country singer Drake Jensen is a dear friend of mine and is very open about being severely bullied as a child (Although he doesn’t like the word “bullied,” as he feels “assault” is more accurate). He has embraced the Internet age and used it to spread his message of kindness and respect. The song “Scars” from his latest album immediately became a fan favorite due to its raw emotion when talking about the psychological damage bullying can inflict:
The scars that remain behind do not always belong to the victim. Michelle told me she is forced to live with the high school memories of tormenting a fellow classmate.
“I used to call her names anytime I saw her in the hallway, and I used to call her house and lie about her just to get her in trouble,” she said. “I know I made this girl’s life hell. I was a bully and not really sure why. She was just the one person I set my target on, and she got a lot of anger taken out on her.
“I never was able to say ‘I’m sorry’ to her.”
Some stories of extreme bullying have a happy ending. Michael, who was bullied by his father (and later by schoolmates), says the experiences made him stronger, more determined, and possessing of a clearer sense of self.
“I rose to the top of my chosen career,” he says. “I inherited great genes, so I look younger than most of my tormentors and haven’t fallen into the beer belly category. At 50, I feel the best that I ever have. My self esteem is very high and I look back on that sensitive boy as someone I knew, not myself at all…maybe I blocked it but I will never forget!”
Rick spent his high school years as a victim, and has not only risen above the bad memories, but has gone as far as to befriend his attackers.
“Take it from me, garnering strength from the negative experiences, growing from them, and turning your back on them makes for a much more adventurous life…for me, anyway,” he says.
Marty, the twin who had pizza smeared on his clothing, says learning to love himself took the childhood sting out of the word “fag.”
“When I finally stood up and said, ‘Yes, I’m gay,’ I took all power out of that taunt, both for me and my straight identical twin. I came through the crucible…not undamaged, but still certainly whole.”
Drake. Michael. Rick. I guess you could put me in that category, too. People see me as successful and strong, and many who knew me as a child say I am now a different person.
It’s funny. I have been told by several classmates and peers that they did not see me as a bullying victim at all, and had no idea I was going through something so traumatic. That makes me wonder if we too often live our lives in our own little bubbles, turning a blind eye to the pain around us. Or, perhaps, it was me who has a skewed memory. Maybe I spent my childhood seeing my life through a cracked lens.
But regardless…for me, every day is a conscious choice and a struggle to put myself in public situations where ridicule and belittlement could happen at any time. Staying at home, inside myself, would be so much easier. And safer.
But that is not living. That is existing.
On Sept. 29, 2013, two days before Anti-Bullying Month began, Maxwell, the boy with autism, went out to his parent’s garage, fashioned a noose, and hung himself. He died the next day.
“Autism made dealing with normal everyday ups and downs difficult,” his mother wrote on her Facebook page. “Yes, my son had a brilliant mind; looking through his computer layouts and journal it’s clear we have lost someone who could have saved us all, but couldn’t save himself from himself.”
Fat. Homo. Retard.
Sometime today, you will no doubt be faced with a situation where you can react with kindness, or with ridicule. The effect you have on someone who is struggling in life just might be the difference between a further retreat into themselves, or the blossoming of someone who can make the world a better place.
What will you do?
To learn more about how to get involved with the ever growing anti-bullying movement, check out the “It Gets Better” website and make the pledge!
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE NOVEMBER 2013 ISSUE OF fURvor MAGAZINE